“The Old Woman with the Knife,” written by Gu Byeong-Mo and translated by Chi-Young Kim, is the writer’s first thriller novel available to an international audience. It is about a 65-year-old woman who is an assassin (she calls herself a disease control specialist) by profession and is feeling increasingly anxious about her retirement life. With her very first thriller, Gu Byeong-Mo has proven her potential as a promising writer, focusing not just on the plot and the characters but also on issues that usually do not make it to the forefront, like the status of the elderly (especially women) in democratic Korea and the policies of the state, which tend to focus only on the abled.
As sensitive and emotional as it may seem, the narrative focuses on the central character, Hornclaw, the cold-blooded assassin from whose perspective the events are explored. The novel opens with Hornclaw slashing a man in the metro with her Knife, followed by a brief description of her life as a single, aging woman with her dog Deadweight, who is her only companion. Hornclaw is not an ordinary woman, even though people might mistake her to be primarily because of the way she dresses and carries herself, which is like any other 65-year-old woman. She wants to go to the gym, thinks of taking a walk in the park, and even imagines herself opening a small fried chicken and beer joint in a residential area after retiring from her job, all of which she knows is next to impossible because of the dangers associated with it. Ryu, who had introduced her to the job (he was the one to name her Hornclaw) and whom she dearly loved like no one else, lost his wife, child, and later himself to the enemies that one makes in a profession like this. Still, she dreams. One night, after completing one assignment, she rushes to the clinic in search of Dr. Chang, the doctor associated with her company. She was wounded by her target, and by the time she realized Dr. Chang wasn’t there and that some other doctor had seen her in the bloodied state she was in, she became unconscious. She woke up to find Dr. Kang, who worked in the clinic as an intern. The doctor was young and promised not to tell anyone about treating Hornclaw, but by the time she left the clinic, she was confused by the strong desires that seemed to overcome her. She didn’t know how to comprehend them, and a few days later, she met his family, who ran a fruit-selling business, his father, his mother, and Dr. Kang’s little daughter Haeni. Her thoughts about Dr. Kang often intrigued her—his smile, his quiet voice, his peaceful nature. Her thoughts wandered off to his family as well, to their struggles, their quiet lives, and the sweet little girl. She knew that she was battling some new desires at the time that she least expected it. She was a woman who had given her own child up for adoption within a week of its birth and had burned the only photograph she possessed of it for fear of succumbing to motherly love and care. She was tough and seemed to possess no sense of morality, yet here she was, helping the old and the elderly and exchanging words with them in a manner she had never done before. Was it the effect of old age or her meeting Dr. Kang, or both? We can only wonder.
Like any other assassin, Hornclaw had her enemies too, and we are introduced to them early in the novel. The person is Bullfight, another disease control specialist who works for the same company. He is young and strong, finishes his targets in seconds, and even attends meetings with clients, which Hornclaw has never been comfortable with. Bullfight’s nasty remarks exasperate her, but she is unable to understand the real reason for his hatred until we find Bullfight narrating an incident from his past, back when he was a kid. It turns out that Hornclaw was assigned the task of killing Bullfight’s father, and Bullfight caught her red-handed. He was too terrified to say anything to the woman, whom he knew to be their temporary housekeeper; he just recalls Hornclaw telling him to forget the incident seconds before disappearing. It’s not like he harbors a spirit for vengeance, but he often wonders what had made Hornclaw spare him. He remembers how he wanted to touch her silky straight hair and feels a deep hatred for Dr. Kang and his family because Hornclaw’s attraction to the doctor is what made her vulnerable.
‘The Old Woman With The Knife’ Book Ending Explained
Hornclaw is assigned the task of killing Dr. Kang’s father, and all she can think of is how she could complete the task without causing him much pain. By then, she is already aware of the fact that Bullfight is keeping track of her, though the reason is still incomprehensible to her. She also has a hunch that Bullfight has something to do with the task that has been assigned to her. On her way back from Dr. Kang’s family shop, she meets Bullfight, who tells her that he hates the doctor because she’s attracted to him. It’s both her age and the urges that have softened her and made her just like some other women of her age. Hornclaw knows that Dr. Kang’s family is no longer safe, and Bullfight would do anything to hurt them. Soon she meets Dr. Kang, who tells her that her little daughter has been abducted from kindergarten. He has also received a fax, which tells him to tell Hornclaw to meet the kidnapper at 2 p.m. on the fifth day at the mentioned address. Hornclaw is sure that it is none other than Bullfight who has abducted Haeni. She tries to console Dr. Kang as much as she can and starts preparing for the aforementioned date.
She gets a stun grenade and some extra firearms. On the morning of the 5th, she finds Deadweight lying on her couch, cold. Dejected, she leaves for the task and, on reaching the spot, finds an empty building guarded by people she assumes have been hired by Bullfight for the task. After killing all of them, she finds Bullfight kicking a sack down the stairs, and Haeni’s muffled cries can be heard from the inside then ensues, and a fierce duel between the two efficient disease control specialists, both giving their best in their jobs. Haeni, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to slither out of the sack and call the police. Hornclaw finally manages to stab Bullfight in the intestines, dragging the Knife up near his liver as blood gushes out. She has also suffered multiple injuries, but watching Bullfight in his final moments makes her feel that she has met him somewhere, but she can’t remember exactly where. She finds herself murmuring to him, “Are you able to swallow your pills now?”
In the epilogue, we find Hornclaw getting her nails done at a nail art shop, just like Bullfight once suggested. She has lost her left hand, and after looking at her colorful nails, she is filled with happiness. She realizes that there is much to her life as of now. She knows that she has to “live through the losses that she’s been dealt,” so it’s not yet her time to join Ryu.